Share this article

print logo

Reform U.S. food aid system so we can feed starving people

As a chef, it’s my job to feed people delicious, fresh and nutritious food in a reasonable amount of time. Doing this well is often a race against the clock and it always requires working together.

The same is true for fixing our international food aid system. Think about this: Americans are the most generous donors of food aid in the world, feeding millions of people in dire circumstances. It’s an impressive reflection of our shared values. But despite the best of intentions, American food aid is too often slow reaching people in need, inefficient and can harm some of the very same people – small farmers – it is intended to help.

Imagine being really hungry, literally starving, and having to wait 147 days for food to arrive. That’s the worst-case scenario playing out for millions of people around the world who are in crisis and need help. And it’s an area many Republicans and Democrats agree we can make progress.

That’s because 50-year-old regulations require all food aid to be purchased from U.S. grain traders, even when food is available closer to where it is needed, at a lower cost. These regulations also mandate that at least half of food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged ships, greatly adding to costs and delays. So for every dollar we spend on food aid, less than 50 cents actually reaches the people in need, according to Oxfam America. And it can take up to four months for food to arrive where it’s needed.

These requirements simply don’t make sense in the 21st century if our goal is to feed hungry people and spend tax dollars wisely. Worse yet, sometimes food aid causes local farmers to be displaced. The diversion of food aid budgets to special interests would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so grave. In a world where more than one in every nine of us is chronically hungry, food aid can be an essential way to help relieve suffering. During crises or emergencies, food aid can be crucial to save the lives of people who are unable to feed themselves.

Most people face hunger not because there isn’t food, but because they cannot afford to buy enough food to eat. There may be food available in their market, but they have fled conflict or a disaster and they simply cannot afford it. But even in these instances, our food aid law actually ties the hands of humanitarians responding to crises from buying food locally or regionally. They have to put an order into Washington and wait. And wait.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Leading members of Congress from both parties, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., have worked to modernize the system. Simple common-sense reforms, such as the ones proposed in a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate by Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., can make the necessary reforms and help save millions more lives with no additional cost to taxpayer. This is worth repeating: Millions more lives saved at no additional cost.

As a founder of Food Policy Action, I encourage Americans to learn about how food policy shapes our lives, but also how it affects the lives of others, sometimes thousands of miles away. When presented with the opportunity to make our food aid programs more efficient, I hope legislators will do the right thing by voting to modernize them. For millions of hungry people around the world, it’s a race against the clock.

Tom Colicchio is a chef, food advocate and co-founder of Food Policy Action.